- Revisionist Approaches to American Realism and Naturalism ed. by Jutta Ernst, Sabina Matter-Seibel, and Klaus H. Schmidt
Since the poststructuralist and multiculturalist turns in literary studies, classic literary realism and naturalism have both taken quite a hit. From the position of poststructuralism, realism’s goal of a faithful representation of reality seems little more than an antiquated notion; if there is no true and objective reality, then the very idea of somehow representing it through language (much less through a realist narrative) is naïve at best and dangerous at worst. From the position of multiculturalism, realism was simply too white, too male, and too straight; straight white males writing about straight white males, well, that just does not seem to play well in current critical circles. In short, as the editors of the new collection Revisionist Approaches to American Realism and Naturalism assert, “realist modes of representation have frequently been out of sync with dominant schools of criticism” (vii). And yet, emerging from a symposium held at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, this new collection urges us to recognize that while this may, in fact, be the case, both realism and naturalism still hold a crucial place in American literary history.
The first and longest essay in the collection which lays out these tensions is “Misrecognition, Symptomatic Realism, Multicultural Realism, Cultural Capital Realism: Revisionist Narratives about the American Realist Tradition” in which Winfried Fluck argues that realism (by which he means both classic realism proper and naturalism) “can be called a stepchild of American literary history,” though, he continues, “[i]t has not always been that way” (1). The fundamental shift emerged out of the theoretical turn(s) of the late 1960s which encouraged critics to read “literary realism no longer as a reflection of reality but as a representation, that is, as a discursive construct of reality” (3). Whereas realism initially presented itself as a mirror of reality (social, cultural, economic), more recent trends in scholarship have tended to look at realism with suspicion at best and with utter contempt at worst—hence the tendency towards “revisionist [End Page 182] narratives” about American realism. Over the course of the rest of the essay, Fluck identifies the two major aforementioned strains of realist critique in recent decades: what might be termed poststructuralist suspicion and multiculturalist contempt. Of the first, “epistemologically, poststructuralists claim that our view of reality is based on misrecognition; . . . a literary text that pretends to provide access to reality must thus be seen as an ideological strategy to position a subject in misrecognition” (12). Of the second, “the multicultural turn in discussions of realism is a critique of exclusion,” which can either take an affirmative form in the expansion of the definition of realism to include non-white male authors or a more contemptuous form which “does not go beyond the classics but back to them in order to show that even their work has been constituted by race and gender” (12–13). In short, Fluck concludes, such “revisionist narratives . . . are really narratives about whether and to what extent American literary realism of the nineteenth century has pursued the politics of the new social movements of present-day America” (28). And while he notes that there are still strains of “companion realism” that continue to affirm realism “as an important literary movement,” more are what he acidly (and, I think, rightly) terms “dissertation realism, in which realism is radically ‘critiqued’” (30–31). And this uneven split is largely evidenced in the essays that follow Fluck’s.
Of the “companion realism” type, there are really only three essays in this collection. In the first, Stefan L. Brandt argues that both Mark Twain and William Dean Howells—in their own respective ways—employed an “aesthetics of the commonplace” in which they “utiliz[ed] visual and symbolic patterns that negotiated the common man, commonplace events, and the ideal of democracy” to promote, if problematically, “the question of social equality and unity of all Americans” (36). Arguing...